February 24, 2010

A correction for my review of Shawn McCraney's book

One of the nice things about having a blog is the ability it gives to quickly correct discovered mistakes. About a year and a half ago I wrote a book review of Mormon-turned-Evangelical Shawn McCraney's I Was a Born-Again Mormon. It was published in the most recent issue of the FARMS Review. I wanted to fairly represent Shawn's own experiences in the review. Unfortunately, the opening paragraph contains an error I'd like to clarify:  

In this self-published book, Shawn McCraney describes his alienation from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints before becoming a born-again Christian. He tells of a period of deep anguish as a Latter-day Saint in the 1980s, and though he continued attending his church meetings, he felt increasingly separated from God. By 1997 he was having difficulty keeping a steady job and sustaining his marriage because of an addiction to prescription drugs and alcohol. He felt he had "lost all connection to the God [he] once longed to know."1 
During a recent interview on John Dehlin's "Mormon Stories" podcast, Shawn clarified that he was not addicted to drugs and alcohol, but that he abused them:

Someone wrote a critique against me at FARMS on my book and said I was addicted to pain killers and vodka. I was not. In fact, I say in the book, I wrote, I used them to dull the pain of my doubt and not believing in the church, being married in the temple to a wife who did, my children saying 'I wanna go to the temple' you know, and that conflict and tension was too much for me. And so I began to secretly abuse, when I could find times alone, vodka, or hydrocodone, or whatever, never addicted.2
Later in the review I use the term Shawn prefers:

In light of how McCraney discusses his own drug and alcohol abuse, he seems to believe that some Saints inevitably attribute apostasy to sin...While there is scriptural warrant that various sins can lead to apostasy (e.g., Alma 24:30; Doctrine and Covenants 93:38–39), there is also abundant scriptural precedence indicating that, if such were invariably the case, there would be no faith in God—for example, "All we like sheep have gone astray" (Isaiah 53:6) and "All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23).3
I apologize to Shawn for the error. I added a corrective footnote to the draft on my blog. Here is the relevant selection from Shawn's book regarding alcohol and drugs:

[p. 87] When I was thirty-four, in a desperate effort to ease the pain of my cankered soul and the crumbling of one trusted golden calf after another, I turned to secretly abusing alcohol and prescription drugs. I never took them as part of my daily life but instead saved them for times of deep reflection as a way to numb and self-medicate my pounding pain. Cautious and deceptive, so as to not expose Mary or daughters to my failing ways, I would look for spans of alone time where I could inebriate myself [p. 88] without being caught. Sometimes this meant drinking half a bottle of vodka right before going to bed, or loading up on Hydrocodone before a long drive. Instead of helping me, these deceptive acts exacerbated my impulses toward self-destructive behavior. The depths to which I had inwardly sunk cannot fully be described by words...

[p. 89] Desperate and angry, and quickly losing all consideration for everyone around me, I was a spiritually, emotionally, and socially broken man. I'd given away more good jobs than I can count, broke the heart of my trusted friend and confidant Mary, and turned from most of my life-long friends. I got to the point where I was willing to accept anything that could change my sinful, unhappy condition to one of peace. Anything, except what had failed me in the past. I suppose that is why I ultimately looked to substances.4
Finally, my confusion about this issue also stems from episodes of McCraney's television program, "Heart of the Matter." Shawn not infrequently discusses his view of God's grace compared to his own sinful nature. In one episode, for instance, he depicts himself as an "alcoholic" and a "prescription drug addict." Here is an exact transcript in which he refers to himself in the third person:

I want to say something now that's going to bother some of you greatly. It will certainly be misunderstood but it's not gonna prevent me saying it. I have never, ever, met a man more evil than myself. Shawn McCraney, the man sitting right in front of you, right now, here, on the stage now, is, not was, is, a selfish alcoholic, he is a prescription drug addict, he is a rabid adulterer, a sexual deviant, and a violent man. If you need to see me in my flesh as anything else, you've got your wires crossed. And if you want me to reassure you of anything otherwise, it's not gonna happen. Right now, in my body, in my flesh and bone, live all things vile. They came with my physical entrance into this world and the experiences I had growing up as a child. Take me out and get my old man going and the right circumstances and I assure you I am capable of almost every evil act under the sun. I have nothing, nothing in myself at all that will justify my natural person before God. Nothing but my faith, and trust, and love in Him. And yet, in this state, my fallen nature while I was in sin, He came and saved me. I am a sinner saved by grace. Saved through no good thing in me and through this salvation I was made a new creature in Christ spiritually, in Jesus, in Him. Anything that comes out of me that is positive or loving or beneficial or good originates from Him and in Him alone. And for this I praise Him.5
It seems to me Shawn is employing a rhetorical strategy to emphasize his fallen nature and his being saved through the grace of Jesus Christ. It echoes James 2:10: "For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all." Some of Shawn's details in this quote match descriptions he has given about real-life circumstances (like the use of alcohol and drugs). Other details seem hyperbolic (like sexual deviancy). Thus, it is difficult to separate his actual acts from rhetorical claims. Such a separation is also irrelevant to my review of his book, which is still available here.

Questions, comments, corrections, etc., are always welcome.

Blair Dee Hodges, "Stillborn: A Parody of Latter-day Saint Faith," A review of  'I Was a Born-Again Mormon: Moving Toward Christian Authenticity' by Shawn McCraney," FARMS Review 21:2. I did not choose the title of the essay, I requested a different title. My unedited draft (though still using "addiction") was more clear: "He was feeling desperate and angry, struggling with an addiction to prescription drugs and alcohol, having difficulty keeping a steady job and sustaining his marriage. He had lost his faith in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints..." (BHodges, "Shawn McCraney's 'I Was a Born-Again Mormon: Moving Toward Christian Authenticity," LifeOnGoldPlates.com, 17 June 2009). Shawn responded to this early rough draft: "I actually like your style, Hodges. I find it pretty much on track to what I have tried to say and do. I am interested in your take as to 'my maze of contradictions relative to soteriology,' but . . . whatever. God bless and I too look forward to reading your next edition," (ibid., comment #3, 7 July 2009).

Shawn McCraney on John Dehlin's Mormon Stories episode #126,  apx. 12:10-12:50.

Hodges, "Stillborn," FARMS Review 21:2.

Shawn Aaron McCraney, I Was a Born-Again Mormon: Moving Toward Christian Authenticity, New York: Alathea Press, 2003, reprinted with modifications in April 2007, 87-89.

Shawn McCraney, "Heart of the Matter," episode #190, 3 November 2009, apx. 8:48-11:05 minute mark.


Morgan Deane said...

As somebody who deals with the effects of addiction and abuse on a firsthand basis I think Shawn is making a distinction without a difference. Abusers use addictive substances and the addicted abuse. And the behavior that Shawn described accurately involves both terms. I don't see what the big deal is and I'm not a trained addiction specialist, but I applaud your effort to stay scrupulously honest in your review.

BHodges said...

Thanks Morgan, I appreciate it. I think it's possible to abuse drugs without being addicted, but not vice versa. Use of the wrong word was carelessness on my part. It's too bad that is the only point highlighted in John's interview, but he says he hasn't read my review yet.

BHodges said...

I guess I should also note that drug and alcohol abuse is mentioned in two sentences out of the 37 pages of my review.

Clean Cut said...

I missed the original review, so I never said "congratulations" for being published by FARMS--better late than never. I'm looking forward to reading your review of McCraney's book.

Ironically, I happened upon this post while listening to Van Hale's interview with Shawn McCraney on the "Mormon Miscellaneous Worldwide Talk Show". The fascinating episode, entitled "Anti-Mormon verses Mormon," can be found here: http://mormonmisc.podbean.com/2007/04/17/anti-mormon-vs-mormon/

BHodges said...

That interview has a few classic moments. Shawn sort of loses his cool several times while Van Hale has his dry flat demeanor through it all. I also thin its interesting to contrast Shawn's attitude there and on his TV show with his demeanor on Dehlin's interview. Pretty interesting differences there.

mfbukowski said...

I don't know Shawn, but I do know addicts and I agree with Morgan Deane. The first thing an addict will tell you is that "I am not an addict, and I can quit any time". I have even heard several say with a straight face "I can quit- I have done it several times!" But again, as Morgan implied also, it doesn't much matter where you draw the line. Repeated behavior is repeated behavior, and we are fall in there somewhere on the continuum between someone who has a "bad habit" and an "addict".

BHodges said...

Addict or not, I don't recall him directly discussing use of drugs or alcohol following his conversion experience either way. I'm happy to let him call it what he wants for the purpose of the review, which was not to "dig up dirt" on Shawn.

Chris said...

Kudos for owning up to a relatively minor error, Blair, and for resisting the temptation to justify it rather than retract it. You're a gentleman and a scholar.

BHodges said...

Thanks, yo. It's disappointing that the most feedback I've received on the review post-publication has concerned a mistake in the opening paragraph, but thems the breaks.

BHodges said...

Updated with a clarification today.

Anonymous said...

As a psychologist I'm not sure what point the addiction experts above are attempting to make. Logically, if most or all addicts say they aren't addicts, it doesn't follow that everyone who says he isn't an addict is one. Would they like to defend the conclusion that all users are addicts? I know I wasn't trained to pronounce that and I don't teach it to my medical students because it is not defensible.

What if Shawn McCraney used hydrocodone and alcohol as he says he did, but wasn't addicted as he says he wasn't?

What would be the point of assuming a priori that he's deluded or lying? Ad hominem attack against his born again experience perhaps?

Btw, Shawn has said on several of his weekly podcasts that he no longer uses. Is that not good enough? Again, what's the hoped outcome of disparaging him? I smell something untoward here.

BHodges said...

Hi anonymous. Please use a name or consistent pseudonym rather than "anonymous" when posting comments.

What if Shawn McCraney used hydrocodone and alcohol as he says he did, but wasn't addicted as he says he wasn't?

Did you read the full correction above? As you can see, Shawn has made different claims about it. In one place he calls himself an addict, in another place he says he is not addicted. He read a rough draft of the review and didn't say anything about it at that time.

What would be the point of assuming a priori that he's deluded or lying? Ad hominem attack against his born again experience perhaps?

I don't know what the point of that would be, but since I didn't assume either of those things a priori your question doesn't actually apply.

My review, which this post is intended to clarify, mentions drugs and alcohol not in an effort to discredit Shawn. They were mentioned (extremely peripherally) as part of relating Shawn's own story from his book.

Shawn has said on several of his weekly podcasts that he no longer uses. Is that not good enough? Again, what's the hoped outcome of disparaging him? I smell something untoward here.

I have not made claims about what was or was not "good enough" in regards to Shawn's drug and alcohol use. I published this blog post to acknowledge Shawn's clarification and apologize for the (in my view, justified) confusion. I posted it in good faith, wishing it wasn't such a distraction from my overall review of his book. I encourage you to read it.


BHodges said...

Anonymous, read the comment guidelines before posting again. Thanks :)

Seth Leigh said...

I'm glad you didn't choose "Stilborn: A Parody of Latter-Day Saint Faith" as the title of your piece. I would have been even more impressed if you'd threatened to pull the article unless they gave it a less inflammatory and derisive one. The FARMS habit of using intensely judgmental and scornful titles is childish and a huge turn-off. If anything, the word "Parody" applies to the version of the Gospel that's left once the FARMS apologists have cut out all the things they couldn't properly defend.

BHodges said...

Thanks for stopping in, Seth Leigh. I asked for a different title, they said no. It isn't the last time a journal has not allowed me to change a title. Newspapers do this as well. It's annoying but it's common.

You probably already realize this but it bears repeating anyway: the reputation of the FARMS Review which you appear to accept falls far short, in my view, of what that publication has actually provided on the whole. So yes, I believe there are some snarky titles, snarky reviews, etc. No, I don't think they need to override whatever non-snarky things the FR has published, including, I think, my own piece. To the extent that snarkiness has damaged the reputation of the FR I think that's too bad. But I'm not personally inclined to dismiss ideas based on the fact that they might ruffle someone's feathers or make someone feel bad. I try to discourage snark because I think there are better ways to get things done, but I have still learned from snarky exchanges and recognize some people prefer such things. Even then there has been plenty of non-snark to cover the gap for me personally.

Two related issues come to my mind above all in terms of tone and these publications. First is the moral question, in terms of the "Christian" way to treat others. I've read enough academic journals on non-religious subjects to know there can be cantankerous back-and-forths regardless of the subject matter. I've enjoyed some of the witty repartee from Dan Peterson, Bill Hamblin, or Lou Midgley, etc., and I've laughed just as much at some of the responses to those fellows. So there's an entertainment value there. Sometimes I'm in the mood for it and sometimes I'm not, but to the extent that we are discussing religion I think we have to seriously consider taking a charitable tone. I'm guilty of failing in that regard myself and have seen it have detrimental effects on conversations I've been in. Which takes me to the second consideration (again, the first was the moral question).

The second is the pragmatic question. Is it really useful to enter snarky or aggressive back-and-forths? True, sometimes a little light can be gleaned from the sparks as the hammer hits the anvil, but those sparks can just as well start a fire which will in turn distract us from our original intention of beating a sword into a ploughshare. When I'm aggressive or snarky I give my opponent an "out," an easy way to deflect my point and focus on my behavior, sort of like how you dismiss the giant corpus of FARMS by complaining that they're all a bunch of meanies. But notice that by labeling them an "opponent" I have already increased the likelihood of such a sidetrack.

Thinking of it visually, think of a conversation in person. We are sitting across from each other at a table adversarily, we could just as soon reach our hands out and start an arm-wrestle instead of shaking hands. So instead of sitting opposed, slide over next to the person so that together you are both facing an external problem or question, and can talk about it side by side, still with different perspectives, but as a mutual problem to discuss and not a contest to win. Pragmatically I prefer this because it interests me more, but once in a while I think most people like an arm wrestle. One reason I wanted to keep my own tone solid throughout the McCraney review was to avoid the too-common and too-easy dismissal that the discussion is an attack, allowing people to overlook the points being made.

BHodges said...

...the rest of my comment (I've never reached the max characters here before!):

As for the FR itself, check out this exchange between David Bokovoy and M. Heiser, it was really fun and interesting to me, and doesn't fall into the picture you've painted:

part one:

part two:

I have dozens and dozens of other examples to counter your view that FR should be disregarded based on too-frequent snark, although it might not suit you personally. In my view people can call FARMS mean but still fail to meet their actual points being made (separate the tone from the point and see what you see), nor does it account for all the counter examples.

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